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BERLIN — Ukraine is defending Europe’s security in its battle with Russia, German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht said, expressing “hope” that Kyiv’s latest military successes might accelerate an end to the war.
Speaking to POLITICO in an interview at the German Defense Ministry, the politician from Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) vowed to continue military support for Kyiv against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion “for as long as it takes.”
She also argued that Germany must learn from mistakes in past years and adopt a national security strategy that puts more emphasis on military needs.
The interview came before Lambrecht is due to deliver a keynote speech on Germany’s upcoming national security strategy on Monday morning in Berlin.
“Our values, democracy, freedom and security are being defended in Ukraine, because we see that President Putin has a strategy to spread fear and also to threaten that he could go further,” Lambrecht said, acknowledging that this has direct implications for the EU and the NATO military alliance and these implications must also be realized in Western Europe.
“When I talk to my colleagues on the eastern flank, I sense that they are reacting differently to this aggression and war than we are in Berlin and Paris,” she said.
Lambrecht’s words are remarkably frank for a senior politician from the German Social Democrats: The SPD performed a historic shift on military aid for Ukraine at the outbreak of Russia’s war in February, but the party has been less direct so far when it comes to drawing a link between Kyiv’s fight against the Russian invasion and the security interests of Germany or the West.
Notably, the remarks evoke the famous saying of former Defense Minister Peter Struck, who defended Berlin’s military engagement in Afghanistan in 2002 by saying that Germany’s security is “also being defended at the Hindu Kush.”
Lambrecht’s comments also highlight the long way she has come on military aid for Ukraine, after she was widely mocked in January for touting the delivery of 5,000 helmets to Kyiv as “a very clear signal” of support.
The 57-year-old politician spoke just as Ukrainian troops were starting to make unexpectedly rapid gains in a counteroffensive to the east of the city of Kharkiv, causing Russian forces to retreat.
Lambrecht said “Ukraine’s recent successes give me hope” that Russia might be forced to end its war, adding: “We are very impressed by how bravely the Ukrainians are fighting.” She stressed that “it is clear that we will support Ukraine for as long as it takes, even if this war lasts for weeks or months.”
Berlin ramped up military supplies to Kyiv ahead of the summer, notably by delivering anti-aircraft tanks and howitzers and promising high-tech air defense missiles. Lambrecht said Germany is training Ukrainian soldiers for de-mining operations, and that Berlin is engaged in “very concrete” talks with Warsaw to set up a maintenance center in eastern Poland to be able to quickly repair delivered weapons such as howitzers if needed.
However, Lambrecht’s remarks stand in stark contrast to the fact that she has ruled out further significant deliveries of heavy weapons to Ukraine, arguing that the stocks of Germany’s armed forces, the Bundeswehr, are depleted and that Berlin must hold back weapons to ensure its own defense capabilities as well as obligations within NATO.
“If Lambrecht — quite correctly — concludes that our security is being defended in Ukraine, then it is also important that she and Chancellor Scholz credibly back this up with appropriate deliveries of armored vehicles to Ukraine,” said Roderich Kiesewetter, a defense policy lawmaker from Germany’s main opposition party, the center-right CDU.
While Scholz and Lambrecht stress that Berlin will not deliver heavy battle tanks like the Leopard, or infantry fighting vehicles like the Marder — arguing that no other ally including the U.S. is sending such Western tanks to Ukraine — critics like Kiesewetter argue Lambrecht could immediately supply Kyiv with lighter armored vehicles such as the Dingo or Fuchs, which would provide Ukrainian soldiers much-needed protection as they advance against Russian troops in the east and south.
France already sent “a significant amount” of such armored vehicles to Ukraine. Yet in the interview, Lambrecht argued she had sworn an oath to ensure Germany’s defense capabilities at all times. Moreover, she blamed frugal defense budget policies of previous governments, arguing that many of the vehicles her military possesses on paper are not operational in reality.
“I would very much like to be able to give significantly more to Ukraine,” she said. “If the Bundeswehr had not been so cut up in the years before, that would have been possible. But this is now the consequence of this irresponsible saving.”
Yet Lambrecht’s criticism cuts both ways, since she served in the previous German government — first as parliamentary state secretary in the finance ministry and later as minister for justice and also family affairs. While her direct influence on the defense budget might have been limited in those jobs, it was Scholz who oversaw budget matters as vice chancellor and finance minister from 2018 to 2021.
Lambrecht stressed that Scholz had initiated “moderate” increases in defense spending during those years but acknowledged that this hadn’t been sufficient.
“We were used to peace for a long time,” she said. “But since 2014 at the latest, since the Russian invasion of Crimea, it has been clear that we need to focus more on national and alliance defense … This is something that has been neglected — even though we saw this aggression in 2014. For a long time, we didn’t realize that we as the Bundeswehr were not as prepared as we should have been.”
Scholz promoted Lambrecht to the job of defense minister when he formed his new government last December, but the choice was questioned from the beginning given her limited expertise on defense matters amid the tense geopolitical context.
Criticism of Lambrecht only increased after her much-derided helmets statement. And when Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in February, the minister found herself in the firing line as the German government was lambasted internationally for its hesitant military support. Media reports portrayed her as the “zero-interest minister” and it emerged that she had taken her adult son with her on a government helicopter for a holiday trip, triggering calls from the opposition that she should resign.
Lambrecht withstood the criticism and marched on, also thanks to support from Scholz. And in the interview with POLITICO on Friday, she sought to not only portray military expertise but also emphasized her ambitions to upgrade the chronically under-financed and under-equipped Bundeswehr with the giant €100 billion special fund that the government adopted ahead of the summer break.
She also vowed to tackle the Bundeswehr’s bureaucratic and often inefficient procurement system. “Here in the ministry, every stone is being turned over in terms of regulations in procurement so that we can become even faster,” she said.
Lambrecht also took a swipe at one of her predecessors as defense minister — the CDU’s Ursula von der Leyen, now European Commission president — who had faced strong criticism and even a parliamentary investigation over dubious contracts with high-paid consultants during her tenure.
“Of course, something needs to be reformed in the procurement system. But I don’t need to bring in expensive consultants to do that,” Lambrecht said. “We can do that very well ourselves with our in-house expertise.”
No more German vetoes
Lambrecht argued that the epochal Zeitenwende shift on defense and security policy that Scholz announced in February also meant that “we must be prepared to stand up for our values even by military means.”
This included a sustained commitment to the NATO goal of spending 2 percent of national economic output. “We must be aware that this costs money,” she said.
Lambrecht also spoke out in favor of more joint arms-development projects with EU partners, but stressed that Berlin must be willing to drop its veto right when it comes to selling those weapons to third countries — a demand that is likely to clash with Economy Minister Robert Habeck from the Green party, whose ministry oversees export authorizations and has vowed to enforce a stricter line on weapon deals.
“Germany’s ‘veto’ right in such projects must be questioned and adjusted,” Lambrecht said. “It’s not about us delivering to some rogue state. But if I’m doing such a project together with my allies, who share the same values as I do, and if I’m the only country there that has a different position on an export, then you have to ask yourself whether that can actually be the obstacle.”
With respect to China, Lambrecht said it was important that Germany’s new national security strategy, which is planned for early next year, addresses Beijing’s role in global security and ensures companies don’t become vulnerable due to too much dependence on trade with China.
“It is important that the German government not only has an internal assessment of China, but also represents it publicly — and makes clear what it expects, what it intends to do,” she said. “And I can’t imagine any sensible company simply ignoring this.”
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